Monday Summary at Valencia: Rossi’s New Crew Chief, Crutchlow’s Debut, & Gigi Dall’Igna on Ducati’s Future

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Having a test on the Monday after the last race of the season is a rather cruel punishment for the MotoGP riders. The Sunday night after Valencia is usually a rather festive affair, with teams holding parties to mark either the departure of one rider, the arrival of a new one, celebrating success or drowning their sorrows.

For those ‘lucky’ enough to go to the FIM Gala awards, a stately and formal affair, there is also the need to blow off some steam afterwards, riders are never very good at sitting still for a couple of hours while official presentations are made. Most people in the paddock are usually a little worse for wear on Monday morning.

Several years ago, the riders were given respite on Monday as journalists were allowed to ride the bikes, but as technology and tires have moved on, just getting the tires to work requires the kind of commitment and riding talent sorely lacking among the denizens of the media center (though they would only admit it under severe torture).

Tired of spending many thousands of euros to repair the damage done after the inevitable crashes, that idea was abandoned, freeing up the Monday testing slot. The last couple of years, it was filled by the Moto2 and Moto3 tests, but a single day was not much use, and so the Moto2 and Moto3 teams will now test separately.

So the start of testing saw quite a few bleary-eyed riders turn up for work on Monday afternoon, the test supposed to start at noon. Though the track was clear, and the weather was perfect – warm, dry, with thin clouds preventing the track temperatures from going sky high – much of the action was confined to pit lane, where hordes of reporters thronged around the Ducati, Gresini and Tech 3 garages, where Cal Crutchlow, Scott Redding and Pol Espargaro were due to make their debut.

There was also plenty of ogling at Yamaha’s 2014 machine, though there were virtually no discernible differences between it and the 2013 bike it replaces.

MotoGP bikes tend to change in small evolutionary increments – a different frame wall thickness here, a weld moved a couple of millimeters there, or even more intangible, the invisible world of bits and bytes that control so much of MotoGP performance nowadays.

So of the thirty of forty people milling around Jorge Lorenzo’s 2014 bike, there may only have been two or three which could genuinely spot the differences. I was not one of them.

There were also plenty of absentees: the Repsol Honda team will be testing on Tuesday and Wednesday, though given the weather forecast for Wednesday, they and other teams my choose to pack up and go home early. With only two Honda RCV1000R production bikes to be shared among the three riders at Valencia signed to ride them, Nicky Hayden was forced to sit Monday out.

The NGM Forward team only received their new FTR Yamahas late on Sunday, and the bikes were not ready to roll on Monday. With good weather set for Tuesday, the track should be busy, and we should get a good idea of who stands where.

With the Repsol Hondas absent, Jorge Lorenzo set the fastest time with only his teammate Valentino Rossi for competition. Lorenzo was one of the rather sleep-deprived riders, not having had his ‘eight hours sleep,’ as he put it.

He ended the day just under a tenth quicker than Valentino Rossi, and was pleased with the 2014 machine, despite only spending some 15 minutes on the bike at the end. He declared the bike a little more stable on corner entry and acceleration, but said it still needed work on braking stability, the one area where Yamaha has struggled all year.

Valentino Rossi agreed, citing improved stability on corner entry, as well as more control over the rear tire under braking. Rossi had also worked on strategies for fuel consumption, with the fuel limit dropping from 21 to 20 liters for 2014. They had appeared to be successful, though the real proof will only come in the races.

Monday was also Rossi’s first day with his new crew chief Silvano Galbusera. On Thursday, he had said he would be taking his time in naming a replacement for Jeremy Burgess, who learned of his dismissal last week. That may have been a little white lie to avoid distraction over the race weekend, as Galbusera was announced as the new crew chief on Monday morning.

Rossi had briefly worked with the Italian at Brno back in 2010, when he rode Yamaha’s World Superbike machine to assess his fitness after breaking his leg. The contact had impressed him, and Rossi praised the contact between himself and Galbusera.

He was not overly concerned about Galbusera’s lack of experience with MotoGP equipment, citing the Bridgestone tires as a bigger problem for the Italian crew chief to get to grips with. Rossi told the Italian media that it was nice to be able to speak Italian with his crew chief – though 70% of the communication is still in English, to involve everyone in the garage – but he also discussed the difference with Jeremy Burgess.

Where Burgess had primarily relied on feedback from Rossi to base his set up, Rossi said Galbusera was ‘more analytical,’ working more closely with data technician Matteo Flamigni. The difference was more in the attention paid to details visible in the data, Rossi explained.

The appearance of Galbusera in Rossi’s pit was not the only change of course, with much attention going to Cal Crutchlow’s debut at Ducati, and the two rookies stepping up to MotoGP from Moto2, Scott Redding making his debut on the Honda production racer, while Pol Espargaro took his first steps on the Tech 3 Yamaha.

I stood at trackside for half an hour in the afternoon, watching the bikes circulate and paying particular attention to Crutchlow and Redding, Espargaro only making his debut later in the afternoon. What was immediately clear was just how much Redding was struggling with injury, his riding awkward and stilted.

The injuries Redding suffered at Phillip Island and Motegi are causing him too much pain to form a proper idea of how quickly he is adapting. But he has at least ridden the bike, and has an idea of how it feels and how the Bridgestone tires work. Hiroshi Aoyama on the same RCV1000R made a good step forward, his pace 1.5 seconds quicker than on Sunday, and 0.7 closer to the fastest man, Jorge Lorenzo.

For many fans, the big question was how Cal Crutchlow would do at Ducati. The answer was surprisingly well, both on and off the track. Watching Crutchlow hard on the brakes for Turn 12, then flick the bike over and then on to Turn 13, he looked surprisingly confident.

After having sat at the same spot in both 2010 and 2012 and watched Valentino Rossi and Andrea Dovizioso make their Ducati debuts, Crutchlow looked remarkably good. Where both Rossi and Dovizioso were tentative and cautious, Crutchlow was flinging the bike into the corner with the same abandon which he had displayed on the Yamaha.

Of course, conditions were very different: Rossi’s debut came after a long season on an injured shoulder, while Dovizioso first rode the Ducati on a track which was cold and still had damp patches. Yet Crutchlow’s body language and attitude looked different, something which came through during his media debrief as well.

Instead of the informal chat with a few journalists sitting around a table, Crutchlow found himself sitting behind a table with row upon row of media in front of him. Visibly impressed by the experience, he carried himself with remarkable professionalism, yet retaining his characteristic wit, making the journalists laugh with a couple of entertaining quips.

Crutchlow emphasized the strong points of the bike, its stability in braking and strong acceleration. His first taste of a seamless gearbox had been surprising, coming in to complain that the bike kept leaping forward when he changed gear. That’s what a seamless gearbox does for your acceleration, he was told.

Yes, the bike was weak in turning, Crutchlow said, but that had sometimes been the case with his Tech 3 Yamaha – or rather the ‘other manufacturer’s bike’ as he carefully phrased it. Crutchlow’s attitude is overwhelmingly positive and open minded, and that will surely stand him in good stead.

When Casey Stoner was interviewed by the BBC ahead of Phillip Island, the retired world champion said that the most important part of riding a Ducati was the mental aspect, coming in without expectations of how the bike would behave. Crutchlow appears to have that part right, and has benefited, ending his first afternoon on the Ducati just a tenth of a second behind his teammate Andrea Dovizioso. Crutchlow faces a long and difficult path ahead, but he starts on his journey in the right frame of mind, at least.

The question is, how long will his positive attitude last? His patience will be sorely tested in the first year of his two-year contract with Ducati, as became clear when new Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall’Igna spoke to the media. Dall’Igna was at pains to impress upon the media that he had only just arrived and had no clear strategy for changing the bike yet.

He had much to learn, much to study, and much to think about before he could say anything sensible about the direction the bike may take, making it clear that while nothing was sacred – L4 layout, desmodromic valves, aluminium twin beam frame vs carbon frameless chassis – he was nowhere near making a decision on which direction to pursue.

His priority, Dall’Igna said, was first and foremost changing the organization. The race team and racing department were two completely separate entities, and that was his first priority to fix. Personnel from the race team could be sent to spend time in Ducati Corse, and vice versa, as one of the biggest problems was the communication between the two groups.

Fixing the organization had his highest priority, he said. Asked whether Ducati’s biggest problem was technical or organizational, Dall’Igna answered that they clearly had problems in both areas, but that he couldn’t begin to fix the technical problems before he had sorted out the organizational issues.

Dall’Igna made it clear that he had come to Ducati to succeed. He had championships in every other class and series, but a championship in MotoGP eluded him. He had taken the job as the head of Ducati Corse because it was his best chance of winning in motorcycle racing’s premier class. It would not be easy, but he believed that he would be able to build a bike capable of winning the championship within two years. Hopefully, Audi and Philip Morris are prepared to wait that long.

Though he would not be drawn on how and what he would change, there was some kind of timescale. The bike currently being ridden by Andrea Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow would be discarded in favor of a new bike currently being designed and built back in Bologna. This bike would make its debut at the Sepang test, Dall’Igna said. Only after that bike was on track would he start to work on a future version, though he said he had no idea what that might look like.

That Dall’Igna meant business was clear from his very first actions. He explained that he had both complete freedom and complete control at Ducati Corse, and was free to change what he wanted. His first move was to appoint Paolo Ciabatti, head of Ducati’s MotoGP project, as sporting director of Ducati’s MotoGP and Ducati’s World Superbike projects. Though MotoGP was the priority, success in World Superbikes was crucial, he said. There would be the necessary focus to help make a success of Ducati’s WSBK program, Dall’Igna promised.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Dall’Igna’s answers concerned the Pramac Ducati being ridden by Yonny Hernandez. That machine is being entered under the Open rules, which mean it uses the spec Dorna software and is allowed 24 liters of fuel and extra engines in returned. What was Ducati’s interest in this project? “The Open class will [be] the future of MotoGP,” Dall’Igna said. “So it is important to start as early as possible with this project, to be ready when these are the only rules.”

Would Ducati vote with Honda to prevent spec software from being imposed on all MotoGP bikes? “For sure we would like to develop our knowledge of racing motorcycles as much as possible, and electronics is one of the most important parts of that development,” Dall’Igna said.

The knowledge gained would be used in both racing and in production bikes, Dall’Igna said, with electronics systems for road bikes being developed based on experience obtained in racing. But they were not opposed to only racing using spec software, the Ducati Corse boss said. ‘This is not the best solution, but we have to play with the rules that will be in place.’

Just how successful Honda has been at designing an Open class bike should be clearer tomorrow. Instead of an injured Scott Redding or Hiroshi Aoyama, who has just spent two years on the FTR Kawasaki CRT bike, Nicky Hayden is due to take a seat on the RCV1000R.

Hayden comes from a factory MotoGP machine, and has experience on a Honda V4, having raced for Repsol Honda between 2003 and 2008. Hayden should still be fast, and should be quickly up to speed. Nicky Hayden’s debut on the bike should be the real measure of the RCV1000R.

Photo: © 2013 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved

This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.